Devils Path, Part 1: Ascents

Posted: February 19, 2012 by None Smith in English, Training
Tags: , , ,

We were excited for the adventure that lay ahead of us as the taxi drove away from the the Devil’s Path trail head at Prediger Road in Platte Clove/Elka Park. After leaving our car at the end point of the Devil’s Path on Spruceton road in West Kill this was the opposite of the point of no return – it was the point of complete return. At 12pm we picked up our packs, didn’t leave a trace of our presence at the trail head and away we went towards our first summit, Indian Head mountain.

The trail started out a little above 2,000 feet (approx) and had no snow on the ground. It was mostly

Trailhead signs at Prediger Road

flat. Spirits were up and we reached the first trail intersection (blue and red) with such speed, we figured this was going to be a breeze. Despite the New York Times article and the hype, we figured, “It’s the Catskills, all under 4000 feet and it’s been a warm winter – we got this.” We planned on reaching the Mink Hollow lean-to, 9 miles away, for our first shelter. We ended up only making it half way there.

The snow slowly increased, but to no more than 2 inches maximum. There were patches of ice, but nothing to worry about. The trail, heading south, met up with an old dirt road and we turned west to head up the ridge. According to the trail guide I found on cnyhiking.com, we had three steep ascents (with three view points) before reaching the summit. It was on the first steep ascent that we got a taste of what we were in for for the next 2 miles.

Ice. Pure, smooth, silky, ice. Hide that ice under 2 inches of snow with inclines of 40-50 degrees (sometimes more!) and you’ve got a treacherous path where every step can cause a slip. The three ascents left us sweating, breathless, and covered head-to-toe in snow. We didn’t have ice gear (ice axe, crampons, rope) as our preparations and research left us with the impression that ice wouldn’t be a problem (or non-existent). On one particular ascent, the ice-covered rocks became near vertical. We relied on protruding rocks and roots for handholds and carefully placed our feet to maneuver our way up the cliff. We would go one at a time, as if on belay, and advise the other on the best route.

We were quickly learning not to underestimate these unassuming mountains and hills of upstate New York. Our margin of safety was getting smaller as we realized a sprained ankle or twisted knee would mean trouble.

Half way up, as I was standing on a precariously small rock shelf, one hand on an uneasy root, the other hand searching upwards for a suitable hold, our taxi driver’s voice rang in my head. “You guys have cleats or crampons, right? I hear it’s icy up there.” Locals always know best.

Over the last couple weeks, I’ve really been pushing myself while climbing in the gym. Most mornings I have been waking up with “fat” hands and hurt joints – some fingers hurting more than others. From what I’ve heard and read about, there’s a good chance my tendons are getting stressed and my

An Icy Climb

calluses are building up on my skin. The physical feeling has come with a profound sense of satisfaction, feeling actual changes as my climbing ability improves. On that ice-strewn precipice, the feeling quickly slid away. The cold snowy tree branches and rocks were getting through my gloves and chilling my hands. My already sore tendons and muscles were contracting under my skin and each grip on a tree root cramped the muscle under my thumb. The ascents, on top of being dangerous, were becoming painful.

As I ascended another rocky outcrop, I hung to the right of the trail as it provided trees to hold on to for a ways up. The left side contained only icy rocks with steep drops and little to no hand holds. Just like that, the Devil’s Path toyed with us and the trail switched on itself. I was now standing in front of rock ledges full of ice and no places for my hands and the trees and hand holds were on the left hand side. Behind me, a 4 foot drop to the ledge below. With another small ledge below it, along with another below that. If I fell, there’s a good chance I would keep sliding. Looking up the trail, I was left with little choices. I had to get to the left hand side where there was better snow and something to hold on to. I placed one foot out into the middle of the trail. It seemed stable. I readied my stance and began to move my body weight on to my left foot. I saw the tree I intended to grab.

I stepped out onto the trail, planted my right foot and tried to grab the tree as steadily as possible. As with any other fall we experienced, it was surprising and uncontrolled. Both my feet went out from under me. Before I could fall any further my fingertips wrapped around the base of a small pine tree. I scrambled my way into a semi-steady position and slowly made my way up to solid snow.

Finally, we reached the summit of Indian Head mountain. We approached a ledge that provided an expansive view but around 10 feet from the ledge, Paul slipped. Flat on his back after yet another uncontrolled fall, we decided to stay away from getting close to any ledge – no matter what view it afforded.

On the summit we followed a narrow trail full of short evergreen trees. With snow everywhere it was

Bobcat Track; enlarge for detail

truly a magnificent sight. To add to our appreciation that thus far nothing serious had happened we began to notice a consistent set of foot prints. After close inspection, Paul, extremely knowledgeable in wildlife, gasped in surprise at what we had found. With four pads and no claws they were definitively cat tracks. The only wild cat that lives in the Catskills area at this elevation is the North American Bobcat. Since it had snowed earlier in the day, and the tracks were clear in the snow, it was obvious that the cat was here very recently. We were elated at our find and picked up our pace to hopefully get a glimpse of this solitary creature.

The ascent of Twin mountain provided much of the same difficulties Indian Head gave us. We had already learned the important lesson – never underestimate inclines and never underestimate the winter months. They can provide surprises at every turn. The devil of this path truly was a wily one.

For the technical: without ice, I would consider the steep ascents class 4 – with ice, WI1.

In the next post on the Devil’s Path I’ll describe the even more dangerous descents down Indian head and Twin mountain

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